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February 12, 2016

Leaders and legacies


February 12, 2016

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Nations are not led by leaders any more. Countries, including those considered mothers and champions of democracies are no longer governed by moral or ethical values. The misfortunes of our world today come not from excess but from total absence of leadership at national and global levels.

Look what the Bush and Blair duo together did to their people and to the world. Both defied popular will in embarking upon a military adventure in Iraq and then circumscribing the liberties of their own people on the pretext of curbing terrorism. History did not take long to give its verdict on their legacy.

During his last visit to Baghdad, two size 10 shoes were hurled at George W Bush in full force and in public gaze by a journalist as a ‘farewell gift’ to him in the name of the people killed in that war. Unlike his other living predecessors, a scornful disesteem, if not total oblivion from public memory is his legacy.

Likewise, Tony Blair’s legacy is also one of lies that took Britain to war five times in six years, in Iraq in 1998, and then Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Iraq again. His unenviable place in history is as ‘Bush’s poodle’ or ‘Yo Blair’ as Bush used to fondly call him. Beyond their crappy legacies, there are painful questions that history alone will answer.

Did Bush and Blair declare the Iraq war because they genuinely believed it was the best way to guarantee peace in the world and safety of the American and British people? Was it an honest mistake or did they do it in a premeditated attempt to seize greater political power?

The problem is that the story did not end with Bush and Blaire. In 2008, the Americans elected for the first time after John F.Kennedy a different brand of leader who promised to them how he would make the difference in their lives as well as those of the people of the world. The son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, President Obama entered the White House shattering America’s two century-old race barrier.

No doubt, President Obama inherited a terrible legacy of wars, global image erosion, fractured economy, depleted social security, healthcare crisis, and decaying education system. Not since Franklin D Roosevelt’s inauguration at the thick of the Great Depression in 1933 was a new president confronted with the magnitude of challenges that Obama faced at the beginning of his presidency which was seen as a watershed opportunity for the United States to recover from its global alienation and perception as an ‘arrogant superpower’ with unilateralist policies and double standards. Everyone looked at Obama’s victory as a sign of change in America’s global outlook and behaviour.

In his first inaugural address, President Obama explained how at home he would turn over the languishing economy. Abroad, he pledged to end the war in Iraq and defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In his first term, he delivered on neither. The economy never recovered from its worst recession since the Great Depression. The scene on the war front was no less pathetic. His vision of a new America at peace with itself and with the rest of the world remained unfulfilled. Even after partial US withdrawals, Iraq kept smouldering and Afghan peace was nowhere in sight. Al-Qaeda remained as elusive as ever. The feeling that America had a different kind of leader thus evaporated in thin air.

President Obama had just been in office less than nine months when he was picked up by the Nobel Committee for the 2009 Peace Prize citing him “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation.” He became the third serving US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The other two sitting American presidents to have received this honour were Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, for negotiating an end to the war between Russia and Japan, and Woodrow Wilson in 1919 for the historic Treaty of Versailles. Obama had no such feat to his credit other than mere promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least till then, no “extraordinary efforts” for peace were visible on his part.

If anything, his Nobel ‘citation’ was already in tatters. Only days before receiving his Nobel, Obama ordered a military surge of additional 30,000 troops for Afghanistan. It took him four years to withdraw those troops though a significant number of them still remain there. From being a global peacemaker, he turned his Nobel moment into an “unapologetic defence of war.” He justified wars to make peace. “For make no mistake. Evil does exist in the world and evil must be fought with evil”, he declared. This was a new Obama altogether sanctifying the medieval concept that noble ends justified ignoble means.

He was at his Hegelian best then in proclaiming war as an ethical aspect “which ennobles human activity.” It must have been a jarring moment for his selected audience at the ceremony when Obama spoke rather nonchalantly of his troops in Afghanistan: “Some will kill. Some will be killed.” He also claimed that “force is sometimes necessary” and that “we will not eradicate conflict in our lifetimes.”

Three years ago, a militant Sunni insurgency was unleashed with oil-rich Gulf states’ funding to topple the ‘tyrannical’ Assad regime in Syria. It was meant to bring the ‘Arab Spring’ to its logical end. But that did not work. The heavily-armed insurgents soon changed their mind and declared a controversial Islamic State of their own. In 2014, President Obama unveiled his ‘new war’ strategy against the so-called Islamic State which was perceived as “a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East – including American citizens, personnel and facilities”. Earlier in 2011, a UN-authorised air campaign was used to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi initially on the pretext of protecting civilians but in due course escalated into a regime-change operation.

The situation in both Iraq and Libya reminds one of a pottery store rule: ‘you break it, you own it’. This rule applies to nations as well. While these military interventions have left victim nations shattered, governments of the so-called ‘peace-coalitions’ are like the customer who just walks away whistling after breaking china, hoping no one has noticed the mess left behind. Obama is now nearing the end of his second term. Whosoever it is, his successor will be inheriting a world no less turbulent than it was when Obama took over eight years ago.

The change that he promised never came. In fact, until last year, Obama kept the old conflicts alive while also waging new wars. But he was at least honest in admitting in his last State of the Union message that the world he was leaving behind was in a terrible flux. “Instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world – in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia”, he warned. What in fact he said was that his successor will be the proud owner of a world in chaos.

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